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Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans in the age of westward expansion

AP.USH:
KC‑6.2.II.C (KC)
,
MIG (Theme)
,
Unit 6: Learning Objective B
Like Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Chinese immigrants suffered harsh consequences due to relentless westward expansion by whites in the nineteenth century. 

Overview

  • In the nineteenth century, Mexican American, Chinese, and white populations of the United States collided as white people moved farther west in search of land and riches.
  • Neither Chinese immigrants nor Mexican Americans could withstand the assault on their rights by the tide of white settlers. Ultimately, both ethnic groups retreated into urban enclaves, where their language and traditions could survive.
  • Las Gorras Blancas, the White Caps, were a rebel group of Mexican Americans who fought back against the appropriation of their land by white settlers; in 1889 and 1890, they burned farms, homes, and crops.

Manifest Destiny and minorities

As white Americans pushed west, they not only collided with Native American tribes but also with Mexican Americans and Chinese immigrants. Mexican Americans in the Southwest had been given the opportunity to become American citizens at the end of the Mexican-American War, but their status was markedly second-class. Chinese immigrants arrived en masse during the California Gold Rush and numbered in the hundreds of thousands by the late 1800s; the majority lived in California, working menial jobs.
These distinct cultural and ethnic groups strove to maintain their rights and way of life in the face of persistent racism, but the large number of white settlers and government-sanctioned land acquisitions left them at a profound disadvantage. Ultimately, both groups withdrew into homogenous communities in which their language and culture could survive.

Chinese immigrants in the American West

The initial arrival of Chinese immigrants to the United States began as a slow trickle in the 1820s; barely 650 Chinese immigrants lived in the United States by the end of 1849. But as gold rush fever swept the country, Chinese immigrants—like others—were attracted to the notion of quick fortunes. By 1852, over 25,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived in the United States, and by 1880, over 300,000 Chinese people were living in the United States, most in California.
Although they had dreams of finding gold, many Chinese immigrants instead found employment building the first transcontinental railroad. Some even traveled as far as the South, where they helped farm former cotton plantations after the Civil War.
Several thousand of these immigrants booked their passage to the United States using what was known as a "credit-ticket," an arrangement in which their passage was paid in advance by US businessmen to whom the immigrants were then indebted for a period of work. Most Chinese immigrants were men; few Chinese women or children traveled to the United States in this time period. As late as 1890, less than five percent of the Chinese population in the United States was female. Regardless of gender, few Chinese immigrants intended to stay permanently in the United States, although many were forced to do so when they realized they lacked the financial resources to return home.
A drawing shows a group of Chinese laborers building a railroad. Several of the workers are conversing with one another.
Drawing depicting Chinese laborers building a railroad. Image credit: OpenStax
Prohibited by law in 1790 from obtaining US citizenship through naturalization, Chinese immigrants faced harsh discrimination and violence from American settlers in the West. Despite hardships like the special tax that Chinese miners had to pay to take part in the Gold Rush and their subsequent forced relocation into Chinese districts, these immigrants continued to arrive in the United States seeking a better life for the families they left behind.
The Chinese community banded together in an effort to create social and cultural centers in cities such as San Francisco. They sought to provide services ranging from social aid to education, places of worship, and health facilities to their fellow Chinese immigrants. But, as Chinese workers began competing with white Americans for jobs in California cities, anti-Chinese discrimination increased. In the 1870s, white Americans formed “anti-coolie clubs”—coolie was a racial slur directed towards people of Asian descent—through which they organized boycotts of Chinese-produced products and lobbied for anti-Chinese laws. Some protests turned violent. In 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyoming, tensions between white and Chinese immigrant miners erupted into a riot, resulting in over two dozen Chinese immigrants being murdered and many more injured.
Racism and discrimination became law. The new California constitution of 1879 denied naturalized Chinese citizens the right to vote or hold state employment. Additionally, in 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. It restricted immigration from China for ten years. The ban was later extended on multiple occasions until its repeal in 1943.

Mexican Americans in the American West

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, promised US citizenship to the nearly 75,000 Mexicans living in what had just become the American Southwest. Approximately 90 percent of them accepted the offer and chose to stay in the United States.
Despite promises made in the treaty, these Mexican Americans quickly lost their land to white settlers who displaced the rightful landowners—by force if necessary. Mexican Americans in California—or Californios, as they came to be known—found that their demands for legal redress mostly fell upon deaf ears. In some instances, judges and lawyers would permit legal cases to proceed through an expensive legal process only to the point where Mexican American landowners who insisted on holding their ground were rendered penniless for their efforts.
Much like Chinese immigrants, Mexican American citizens were relegated to the worst-paying jobs under the worst working conditions. They worked as peóns (manual laborers similar to slaves), vaqueros (cattle herders), and cartmen, transporting food and supplies, on the cattle ranches that white landowners possessed, or they undertook the most hazardous mining tasks.
A painting shows a Mexican vaquero mounted on a horse in front of a large steer, which he has lassoed with a rope.
Painting depicting a Mexican American vaquero. Image credit: OpenxStax
In a few instances, frustrated Mexican American citizens fought back against the white settlers who dispossessed them. In 1889 to 1890 in New Mexico, several hundred Mexican Americans formed las Gorras Blancas—the White Caps—to try to reclaim their land and intimidate white Americans in order to prevent further land seizures. White Caps conducted raids of white farms, burning homes, barns, and crops to express their growing anger and frustration. However, their actions never resulted in any fundamental changes. Several White Caps were captured, beaten, and imprisoned, and others eventually gave up, fearing harsh reprisals against their families. Some White Caps adopted a more political strategy, gaining election to local offices throughout New Mexico in the early 1890s, but growing concerns over the potential impact upon the territory’s quest for statehood led several citizens to heighten the repression of the movement.
Other laws passed in the United States intended to deprive Mexican Americans of their heritage as much as their lands. "Sunday Laws" prohibited “noisy amusements” such as bullfights, cockfights, and other cultural gatherings common to Mexican American communities at the time. “Greaser Laws” permitted the imprisonment of any unemployed Mexican American on charges of vagrancy.
In California and throughout the Southwest, a massive influx of Anglo-American settlers overran the Mexican American populations that had been living there for generations. Despite being US citizens with full rights, Mexican Americans quickly found themselves outnumbered, outvoted, and—ultimately—outcast. Corrupt state and local governments favored white settlers in land disputes. Mining companies and cattle barons discriminated against Mexican Americans—as they did against Chinese workers—in terms of pay and working conditions. In growing urban areas such as Los Angeles, barrios, neighborhoods of working-class homes, grew more isolated from white neighborhoods. Mexican Americans, like Native Americans and Chinese immigrants, suffered the fallout of white settlers’ relentless push west.

What do you think?

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Why do you think the US government singled out Chinese immigrants in particular for exclusion?
How does the experience of Mexican Americans in the West compare to the experience of African Americans in the South in the late nineteenth century? In what ways were their lives similar? In what ways were their lives different?
What strategies did Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans use to resist discrimination and build strong communities?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Nancy MJ
    I'm thinking about WHO Mexican American's were. Im guessing they were a mixture of Indigenous people, descendants of Spaniards, and descendants of both Indigenous and Spanish peoples.
    One reason for the racism against many immigrants, including Mexican Americans, was skin color (white supremacy). Spaniards, I believe, had white skin, so Mexican racism this is an extension of the dark skin/indigenous racism. Thus Im guessing that most of the Mexican Americans were of Native decent. NOTE: even today in New Mexico, "Hispanics" make a big distinction between if they are descendants from Spaniards (thus calling themselves "hiSPANICS") as opposed to Mexicans... racism raising its ugly head once again.

    I do have a question here... Im curious, why the Spanish settlers in Mexico, Central and South America who were once so powerful, lost their influence and the US became the "super power".
    (10 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Your question is excellent, especially coming at the end of your well-thought-out introduction. I rarely give an upvote to a question (saving that privilege for replies) but you got one from me.

      Now, as to why European and North American "Spanish" people lost influence, there was a literary and philosophical movement in Spain at the end of the 19th Century that wrote volumes on the subject. Look up "The Generation of '98" and enjoy what Spanish thinkers themselves said about their culture and empire.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Victor Arellano
    The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Why do you think the US government singled out Chinese immigrants in particular for exclusion?
    (5 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Humble Learner
      Probably for a different number of reasons, but the must prominent were probably because of racism, and the surplus immigration from China. Chinese immigrants started to arrive in such great numbers that America thought that they had to do something about it. White people did not like Chinese people as well, so that might have been a contributing factor.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 2012001046
    why did the Chinese community band together in an effort to create social and cultural centers in cities such as San Francisco? and Why Chinese immigrants, Mexican American citizens were relegated to the worst-paying jobs under the worst working conditions?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Alex M. Yu
    why is whites considered settlers and chinese considered immigrants when they both came to a land that don't belong to them?
    (1 vote)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Stephen White
      I think the words can just about be used interchangeably. In fact, the definition of Immigrant is: One who leaves a country to SETTLE permanently in another. So, using the definition, Immigrants are Settlers.

      And, for whatever it's worth, I have frequently heard of whites who came from other lands referred to as Immigrants.
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tovonn Smith
    Was the Chinese Exclusion Act based on racial bias, population conservation, or both? Was it the United States blocking the importation of Chinese immigrants for the purpose of stopping another act racial hatred similar to what happened to African Americans for so long?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user shamar.m.brady
    why where chinese immagrents forced to stay in the u.s
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user alex
    Why did the Chinese have twenty five thousand Chinese immigrants come?I know they got paid, but only a dollar a day,but it was dangerous.
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Jonah S
      The Chinese imperial government at that time prohibited its subjects from leaving China, but many chose to break that law in order on the chance of striking it rich. These people were not paid by the Chinese imperial government, but, if they were building railroads, by the construction companies, and if they were panning for gold, on the chance of finding some. It was dangerous work, but so was life in Southeastern China (from whence many came) at the time.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Colin Duffy
    why were they forced to stay in the u.s?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      When a nation takes over another nation's land by conquest, as the US did to half of Mexico, the people resident there are not "pushed out" or "compelled to stay". Those Mexicans who were resident in the territory that became California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Colorado that HAD BEEN Mexico became instant Americans because of the conquest.
      (1 vote)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Winvy LuvR
    Did this happen the same time as the Gold Rush
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Everyone in California was a Mexican before it became part of the US, either THAT, or they were foreigners there (like the white people who came from the USA). Only after the Mexican American war, and the subsequent theft of half of Mexico by the USA, were there any Mexican-Americans. Now it's mostly Americans, some of whom trace their ancestry to Mexico.

      Chinese came for jobs (railroad construction) and for gold.
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user jaydaGraham
    Why were chinese men forced to stay in the United States.
    (1 vote)
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